The Startup Experience: 10 Lessons in 10 Weeks

lessons-learned

At the time of this writing, I am two days away from (internship) unemployment.  It was previously unthinkable that a formidable-sounding amount of days–ten weeks–could pass in the blink of an eye. Since I know that you are thoroughly uninterested in the mundane events of my summer internship, I’ll share with you ten lessons that I’ve learned, one for each week. Here are ten lessons I’ve learned from my startup experience about startup life, working life, and life in general. Hope you enjoy!

1) Culture Matters

One of the biggest reasons why I will look back on my summer internship with fond memories is because of the culture here at Tint. Each team member is friendly, supportive, patient, and hard working. This made it incredibly easy for me to look forward to arriving in the office and working every day. If I had been placed in a situation where my boss was insufferable or my coworkers were outwardly hostile, I would not have been able to say the same. Growing up, many of our (or at least my) career aspirations revolved around company prestige and employee salary. My experience with Tint this summer has definitely encouraged me to take company culture into deep consideration as one of my job criteria when looking for future employment. Getting paid a large sum of money to work with and hang out with people you don’t like may seem tolerable at first, but it won’t be worth it in the long run.

2) Fail Fast, Fail Often

I mentioned a similar motto in my last post about how to succeed in a startup internship. The motto in that post was “Better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” In a very similar manner, “Fail Fast, Fail Often” encourages one to have a fearless attitude, to be unafraid of failure, and to learn from one’s mistakes. This mantra is especially applicable in the startup space, where the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is king and iteration is the key to learning the lessons that will propel you to success. However, it’s an attitude that also can be adopted to every day life–some men swear by this as their strategy when it comes to women! Oftentimes it is very easy to get caught up with avoiding failure, as failure is a condemning word associated with disappointment and shame. However, by viewing every failure as an opportunity to learn and approach the next situation with greater confidence, we can speed up the learning curve and take on every challenge with confidence, knowing we have something to gain both in success and in failure.

3) You are Never Ready

This is another piece of advice that I already mentioned in my previous post. It’s something that one of the developers on the team told me when I asked him about what kind of challenges and projects he took on when he was learning his craft as a programmer. When I stressed over not having even a fraction of the knowledge that I thought I needed in order to start work on some of the projects I wanted to create, he advised me to abandon the notion that I needed a prerequisite skill set or a certain knowledge level in order to tackle a certain challenge.

In essence, he told me that no amount of preparing and studying would really make me feel “ready” enough, and that the best way for me to learn would be to dive headfirst into the challenge and learn along the way. He assured me I would make mistakes–many, many mistakes, but that the best way for me to gain confidence and knowledge was to actually build something, rather than study materials that I speculated would come in handy when building the project. The takeaway: while preparation is obviously important, preparation because of fear of frustration and struggle is fruitless and unproductive--you will never be as ready as you want to be.

4) Find what works for you

Just because you have a friend who is able to achieve immense success by sitting at their desk for ten hours straight, grinding out projects, and doing it five days a week year round doesn’t mean that that is the formula for success, nor is it an indicator that their strategy would work equally effectively for you. Remember that human beings are the antithesis of a cookie cutter production–each person is vastly different in their own way, and should adopt work habits and methods that reflect this reality. For me, this meant doing creative work (writing blog posts) at the desk, where I felt my imagination was at its best, and addressing emails and taking phone calls at the couches in our incubator space (thank god), where I felt loose and comfortable.

5) Explore

For me this summer has been an opportunity that has forced me out of my comfort zone, working for a startup and living on my own in the city for the first time. It would have been easy for me to occupy myself with adapting to my new circumstances and avoid novel experiences, but I jumped at the chance to explore, both in and out of the office. I asked questions I wouldn’t normally ask, turned some of my lunches into cross city walking/exploring marathons, went to new places, saw new faces, and everything in between. And it definitely has been strange, weird, and unexpected at times, but undoubtedly an excellent adventure.

6) Fake it till you make it

The scene goes like this: the boss asks the intern to complete a task, and the intern replies “yes, of course I can do that!” and then proceeds to furiously Google what the boss just said because he has no idea what the boss is asking him to do, let alone how to go about doing it. After hours of research an work, the intern has completed the task and the boss is unaware that his trusty intern was initially hopeless. This is the epitome of “Fake it till you make it.” The principle is simple: adopt a guise of absolute confidence in the face of absolute terror and uncertainty, and eventually that guise will be replaced by real confidence and more importantly, competence.

I learned this from my first foray into the sales world. When I took my first sales call, I’ll admit it–I was terrified. I felt I knew the product fairly well, but as soon as I was talking to a real live human being on the phone, my brain leapt into overdrive, compromising my ability to even complete normal, coherent sentences. Internally I told myself I had to pretend I was a superstar salesman, and it was as if a switch had been flipped in my brain. The words came calmly and confidently. Customers won’t want to talk to a scared nineteen-year-old boy quavering on the other end of the line, they want to talk to a confident and knowledgeable man, so I had to put on my best impersonation and deliver. It’s almost like being delusional, but doing so to your own advantage. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t–you’re right.”

7) Observe and Listen (To Yourself)

While summer internships and jobs are a fantastic opportunity to soak up all of the information and knowledge gained from the people and places around you, one crucial person to remember not to overlook is yourself. Being placed in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable environment is a prime opportunity to learn new information about yourself–much of which can surprise you! For example, I learned that my best creative work is done at a desk, as opposed to a couch or a bed, and that I often become sluggish after lunch hour, which can be easily cured by a 10 minute nap. A novel situation can turn out to be the best way to get in touch with yourself, which is invaluable–if you can’t make yourself happy, then no one can!

8) Your life can change forever at any moment

In the past, I would often get caught up in the whole mundane-ness of life, convinced that regular things had happened in the past, regular things happened every day, and regular things would continue to happen. However, as a result of the startup space, with VC meetings and offers, and the city, where you can meet fabulously successful, wealthy, and well-connected people, my mindset has changed to reflect a new belief that a person’s life can be forever changed at any moment. This does not mean adopting an opportunistic mindset, where I try to exploit every person and every situation in order to gain personal benefit. Rather, it’s a hope and an awareness that every person that comes into your life and every action that you take happens for a reason and has potential to impact your life in ways that you would not expect.

9) Take everything in stride

This one goes hand in hand with the previous one. As we grow older and older and exciting/weird/unexpected events happen to us with greater frequency, it’s important to learn how to take everything in stride and not to be derailed or paralyzed by excitement, fear, or surprise. This allows us to take advantage of opportunities as soon as they are presented to us and demonstrates a healthy dose of poise. The poise and composure demonstrated by leaders is an admirable trait that I hope to be able to emulate in the future.

10) Work Hard, Stay Humble

We joke about this one alot because there’s a pole a couple of feet in front of us that has this motto scrawled in fancy typography. Typically we’ll repeat this phrase to one another when one of us is guilty of hubris, as if it’s a silly joke not meant to be taken seriously. However, working in this incubator space, surrounded by hard-working, passionate entrepreneurs, gives the phrase resonance. Even more so when the city outside of the doors is taken into account, with the WordPresses and Eventbrites of the world just around the corner, it’s not hard to keep one’s head down and ego in check. All in all it’s another friendly reminder that there’s always someone more successful, well rounded, intelligent, wealthy, etc out there so rampant arrogance is never justified. Work hard and smart, and your achievements, friends, and family will speak for you.

 

What are your opinions on what I’ve learned this summer? Any key advice that you’d like to offer? Have you had similar experiences? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

-Eric